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'Not by accident': False 'thug' narratives have long been used to discredit civil rights movements

Demands for equity and equality are portrayed as threatening and dangerous
Image: People take knee in support of Black Live Matter movement outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington
People take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 18, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

President Donald Trump has developed a harsh vocabulary list for those involved in the Black Lives Matter protests, calling those in the streets everything from “terrorists” and “anarchists” to “thugs.”

Since the protests erupted in the wake of the death of George Floyd on May 25, a Black man who died while held down under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the president has used “thug” to describe those protesting his death and police brutality nearly a dozen times on Twitter and often on the campaign trail.

“They are not “peaceful protesters”, as Sleepy Joe and the Democrats call them, they are THUGS - And it is all taking place in Democrat run cities. Call me and request Federal HELP. We will solve your problems in a matter of minutes - And thanks to the U.S. Marshalls in Portland!,” Trump tweeted last week.

Trump's adoption of the word "thug" isn’t a new trope for politicians. The narrative of violence has been used to delegitimize racial protest movements throughout the nation’s civil rights history, largely in an effort to undermine the message and diminish support, political experts say. The use of the word thug is a part of that history and continuum.

It's all part of an effort to rewrite the history of peaceful movements, tarnishing legitimate protests with the specter of violence. Often, as in the case of Black Lives Matter, it is notably false.

Of the more than 7,750 Black Lives Matter demonstrations held across the country in the last several months, 93 percent have been peaceful, according to a report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit organization that tracks global political protest and violence, and Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative published in September.

Between May 26 and Aug. 22, “more than 93 percent of all demonstrations connected to the movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity. Peaceful protests are reported in over 2,400 distinct locations around the country. Violent demonstrations, meanwhile, have been limited to fewer than 220 locations — under 10 percent of the areas that experienced peaceful protests,” the report stated.

“Violent demonstrations include “acts targeting other individuals, property, businesses, other rioting groups or armed actors” among others. In areas where protests did turn violent, the demonstrations were "largely confined to specific blocks, rather than dispersed throughout the city ” the report added.

Despite the numbers, the overarching portrayal of the protests by those opposed to the movement have been that they are violent, unruly and destructive. That's a strategic choice, said Trimiko Melancon, a professor of African American and American literary and cultural studies at Rhodes College.

Melancon noted that acts of violence that have been the exception and not the rule are propped up and seized upon to justify suppression of an entire movement that has been largely peaceful.


As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the mid-20th century, there was a reflexive impulse from those opponents of the movement in the West Wing to the FBI to often refer to civil rights activists as “subversives,” a label that often implied violent intent and designs, noted Brett Gadsden, professor of political history at Northwestern University.

He added that the charge of ‘subversive,’ leveled by officials who opposed concerted challenges to racial inequalities and inequities, also served to cast activists’ demands as outside the mainstream current of reputable politics and diminish their claims to rights owed to citizens of the republic.

“Civil rights activists were demanding the recognition of their rights as citizens of the republic and the core of their movement looked toward the 14th and 15th Amendments as milestones.”

One of the most glaring examples was in 1963 during the Birmingham protests against the Jim Crow laws that had long legalized racial segregation, he said. When protesters mounted nonviolent direct action campaigns challenging unjust laws, authorities often cited the violence that resulted in property damage as examples of militant rage as a way to purposefully diminish and distract the nation from the original claims of protesters.

“I think we see variations of that going on in American cities today. The Trump administration cites the kinds of late-night violence and destruction of private property as a way of purposely distracting from the original complaints about rioters, which is abuses of power by police.”

Protesters asking for justice for a man who died as a result of a police officer putting his knee on his neck for almost 8 minutes, have been cast as some kind of threat to the social fabric of society, he added.

The Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s faced similar discrediting. Their demands for equity and equality were portrayed as threatening and dangerous, said Todd Shaw, a professor of political science and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina.

Shaw said that that perceived threat then became the basis of an aggressive “law and order” response by President Richard Nixon.

That tactic intentionally projected aspects of the civil rights movement, the Black power movement and the racial unrest that emerged around questions of police brutality as violent, he said. Nixon seized upon that narrative telling white suburban women, for example, they would have to remain in his camp for protection, otherwise the violence would seep into their neighborhood, Shaw added.

Nixon homed in on violence and crime implicitly and explicitly linking both to race during his campaign and as president. On one occasion in 1972, after reviewing one of his campaign television ads on crime, he remarked that it “hits it right on the nose. It’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.”

Nixon's appeal to law and order and protection has had echoes this summer.

“I am your President of law and order, and an ally of all peaceful protesters,” Trump said in a speech given at the White House in June. “We are ending the riots and lawlessness that has spread throughout our country.".


While civil rights protesters have been characterized as violent in the past, “thug” has become the modern racialized iteration to describe these individuals today.

The term originated in India to describe gangs of thieves who swindled and lied and was eventually co-opted in the West over the last century with the same criminalized connotation through books, music and movies.

“‘Thug’ is a coded and racialized term that people use instead of Black or brown. These labels and monikers have particular layers and certain things already embedded in them, so when people hear that they know who it means,” Melancon of Rhodes College said.

Melancon said these words paint protesters not as peaceful demonstrators, law-abiding people or patriots who are exercising their first amendment rights, but as an enemy of the state.

“None of this is new or novel, you see particular iterations of this over time,” she said. “It's not history repeating itself, but more moving along a similar kind of continuum.”

But the term has not been linked to Trump or the right wing alone, it was also used by President Barack Obama and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in 2015 to describe those participating in riots after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

Both faced significant backlash for carelessly using the loaded and racialized term that many feel is akin to the worst racial slurs, John McWhorter, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, said in an interview with NPR.


During a conference call last week, Attorney General William Barr advised federal prosecutors across the country to consider bringing several aggressive federal charges against people arrested at protests, including the highly unusual charge of sedition, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Sedition charges can carry up to 20 years in prison and are brought against those who plot to overthrow the government.

“This is not innocuous and it's not by accident. It's deliberate and strategic and used to undermine the very movement for racial justice and civil rights by creating a particular narrative of resistance, disturbance and even criminality,” Melancon explained. “No one feels comfortable siding with violence, so when people hear this, even well-intentioned people, this creates a particular type of fear and hysteria.”

And using the term “thug” is part of the tactic, she added

Part of the narrative of violence is written with optics and playing up a threat, Shaw of the University of South Carolina added. If you say there is a threat, then you have to back it up, he said.

Many times, the rhetoric around threats creates a disproportionate force in action.

That means, despite the fact that demonstrations associated with the BLM movement have been overwhelmingly peaceful, “more than 9 percent or nearly 1 in 10 — have been met with government intervention, compared to 3 percent of all other demonstrations,” the report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project said. “Authorities have used force — such as firing less lethal weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray or beating demonstrators with batons — in over 54 percent of the demonstrations in which they have engaged. This too is a significant increase relative to one year ago.”

“Of course, there are some law enforcement concerns given some degree of violence, but there are ways by now that American policing and law enforcement are aware of what inflames violence and protests and what ratchets it down.”

“We see the deployment of the military when it's a war zone,” Melancon said. “When you see them with demonstrators, we automatically think they are the ones participating in un-American acts.

The narrative is also employed to detract support and sympathy, she explained.

“Early on, people are sympathetic because they see images of people being shot in the streets with impunity. So, initially, they are empathic, and then what has to happen is that you have to change that narrative. You encounter it by showing that they are not innocent and they are not demonstrators,” she said.

People say, “Well, that’s what the consequence is if they weren't acting peacefully, therefore, they were met with these consequences,” she said.


Experts like Gadsden noted that when there is violence, it is important to distinguish those episodes from protests organized as purposefully nonviolent direct action campaigns.

Distinguishing between the acts is both crucial and something that civil rights leaders in the past, like Martin Luther King Jr., tried to maintain, he said. These leaders made special efforts to ensure discipline among the ranks of marchers in places like Birmingham to prevent rioting and destruction of public property that would diminish their claims in the public sphere.

Several Black Lives Matter chapters have condemned violence taken place during protests.

T. Sheri Dickerson, leader of the Oklahoma City chapter of Black Lives Matter, condemned violence that occurred in the aftermath of a protest in June, and stressed that the movement encourages peaceful protests. “I never disparage my community members for choosing however they decide they want to express themselves, however, this was not something that was promoted by us. It certainly was not condoned by the Black Lives Matter-OKC chapter.”

In response to mass looting in Chicago last month, Amika Tendaji, executive director of the groups Chicago chapter said, “organizationally, we certainly don’t have anything to do with — or condone — illegal activity that, you know, really frightens and, quite frankly, pisses off a lot of Black folks.”

This isn’t new. After a lone attacker ambushed Dallas police officers at the end of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in 2016, organizers said "Black activists have raised the call for an end to violence, not an escalation of it.”

When people see direct action campaigns like those protesting in the streets, opponents of reform cite any incident of “illegal behavior” as part and parcel of that main movement itself and those expressions of violence get cited at the expense of the very legitimate claims of the original movements themselves, Gadsden said. He noted that when some protesters have resorted to violence, it is essential to never lose sight of the persistent institutional racism that serves as the structural foundations of popular discontent.

There is also a level of “infiltration” within these movements, Melancon said. You have well-intentioned protesters who are not participating in violence and then you have outside agitators whose very specific role is to make it as though those demonstrators are looting and burning.

Since May, Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project has recorded more than 100 events in which nonstate actors actively engaged in demonstrations, including counterdemonstrations. The vast majority of those counters were in response to demonstrations associated with the BLM movement, the report stated.


There is a notable difference between Black Lives Matter as a movement and the civil rights movement that preceded it: leadership. In 2020, there is no central leadership. In the past, notable leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. were characterized as radical at times in order to put their following in a bad light.

Further, this particular movement has also garnered a massive multiracial and multicultural coalition. Many Americans have also demonstrated sympathy to the central organization tenets that Black lives matter and are critical of these extraordinary forms of policing. That doesn’t mean Black Lives Matter is immune from those opposing the movement, including the president, from using violence as a narrative and thug as an adjective. Undoubtedly, the "thug" narrative will continue to be ramped up as the election draws near, experts said.

“A creation of these narratives is really central to our understanding of social protest movements and the government's reaction to them,” Gadsden said. “That is the case whether it is civil rights, suffrage, environmental justice, that there are always forces of opposition trying to create counternarratives that purposefully misrepresent and caricature these movements to delegitimize them.”